Speaking Without Words

Last night I went to see War Horse, which is an intense and powerful performance focused on a horse (and the humans around him) that fought in World War I.

Just a few minutes ago, my dog kicked his empty food dish.

While these two things seem totally unrelated, they both linked in my mind because they are great examples of communicating without words.

Eli let me know that his bowl was empty, and he was hungry, by banging the metal bowl and making a noise.  He’s learned that this will get my attention, and food will appear.  He will also carry his empty water bowl into the living room, if kicking it or knocking it around didn’t work.  He has figured out a way to let me know his needs, and get them fulfilled.

War Horse uses huge, three-person puppets as the horses, but you don’t really notice the puppeteers most of the time.  The horses breathe, flick their tails, and move their feet in the same way as real horses.  People ride them, too, which is amazing.  But the coolest thing to me is the expressions.

Horses have very expressive ears, and they communicate a great deal by posture.  The creators of the show and the puppeteers have done an amazing job of capturing that method of communication.  Even from the mezzanine, I could tell when the horses were scared, nervous, or curious, simply by their ears and body positioning.

Animals can (and do) communicate very readily without words.  As authors it behooves us to notice these details and perhaps have the opportunity to capture one or two in our writing.

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Limited Communication

Eli, my dog, stuck his face in mine a few moments ago.  He’s started this habit recently; when whining doesn’t get my attention, putting his head on the arm of my chair, the edge of the bed, or my shoulder is his next effort.

Dogs have detailed, involved communication with each other; they use scent, body positioning, and sound, just to name a few.  But their communication with us is more limited.  I can tell when Eli wants something, but with a few exceptions I can’t usually tell what he wants.  (The exceptions are all related to food.  He is obvious about wanting food, either by carrying his bowl to where I am sitting or banging it around with his foot.)

When he set his chin on my shoulder earlier, I started thinking about things from his point of view.  It must be tough to live in a world where you can’t fully convey your needs.  As a person who makes a living communicating, and makes a hobby of writing, it is such a foreign concept that I simply can’t imagine going through life unable to share more than rudimentary ideas with the person who takes care of me.

Poor Eli.  I wonder if there is some way for me to open up channels of communication through training.  For example, maybe I could teach him to bump a little bell when he needs to go outside.  It would be nice to give him a little more control over his life, even if he is an old dog.